Dear Kathy, 

How are you? Today is the “Start of Autumn” in China. Both my dad and grandma have been messaging me about eating meat since they woke up, I never knew why eating meat is the tradition of the first day of the fall, but I also never questioned these traditions. Grandma said skinny people eat meat, fat people eat cucumbers, I don’t know if she just made up the cucumber bit. I wanted to make her laugh, so I asked if I should have cucumber or meat, she replied in a very serious tone that I’m too skinny to be eating more cucumbers. So I ordered some fried chicken for breakfast. 

 

You know, as much as I sometimes get annoyed at their cyclical messaging, it’s really nice to be “pestered” about these trivial things in life. It tells you that someone in the world loves you unreservedly. They are thinking whole-heartedly for you, I guess that’s family. But if they are gone, who’s going to remind me of these Chinese traditions that I traded for Santa and turkey? If grandpa was still here, he would’ve made blanched pork belly and garlic soy dip at lunch. And grandma would’ve made sure he’d made enough for a whole week. Tomorrow is the “Start of Autumn” in Vancouver, you and Sean should eat meat too. I heard it’s been really hot there, which is unusual for Vancouver. It’s also been really wet here, which is unusual for Beijing.

 

You asked me what it’s like to be home. Well, being back in China for this long feels weird, haha. But it also feels weird saying that, because it’s where we are from. But I guess for people like us, everything is kinda weird, leaving, returning, leaving again etc, etc. Remember we used to say “home is where the heart is” to make us look cool, lol, until we are finally old enough to feel the grief of it becoming a reality.

 

Coming back feels like being tethered to an umbilical cord, it’s both nourishing and strangling. Everyone here (me especially I think) is trying to get used to having “me” around. Sometimes I feel like a distant relative, because I’ve missed out on so many things over the years, and they have become too complicated to be explained to me. But most of the time, I still feel like the same child, like no time had elapsed between the day I left, to the moment I’m writing to you now. The only evidence of change is the house that’s now even more stuffed full of grandma’s things from floor to ceiling, and she has moved to sleep on grandpa’s side since he passed away. I don’t know what I’m ranting about but perhaps it’s got to do with grief, with traditions, with family, with materiality, with displacement... and having inserted myself back into what feels almost like an alternate reality, I am experiencing a duality of my existence. I am shimmying between my life in China and in Australia, shimmying between the walls of grandma’s “stuff fortress”. Song Dong’s works keep popping up in my head, the past and present of my family memory is like the air I breathe in, his works that we both love so much have become more and more poignant. 

 

I don’t remember how I discovered Song Dong, I must have been researching something else and stumbled upon photos of Waste Not. I remember telling you about it and you told me you had dinner with him one time in Beijing, it made me super jealous. 

 

That’s when my grandpa was still alive, grandma was cheerful, my dad was in the early stage of renal failure and your dad had just been diagnosed with ALS. It was the time the fear of death began to loom. I don't think I’d ever learnt how to deal with the grief of losing a family member if I hadn’t experienced it. Yet, we’ve both experienced it now, I still don’t know if I’d learnt how to deal with it. 

 

I have never seen anything more powerful and I have never felt so touched and attached and confronted when I looked at Waste Not. Every common household object in his work recalled memories of my family, the lives of three generations through every trinket and pair of shoes, echoing my past, my future and the present that I’ve been absent for. 

 

Grandma and grandpa spent 62 years together in this world. So her “stuff fortress” is the result of 30 years of scraping by and 30 years of overbuying and hoarding, which totally made up for the first 30 difficult years.

 

Song Dong said when he confronted his mother about hoarding, she always replied “You never know when it’ll come in handy”. The same phrase my grandma uses to brush off our complaints. 

 

Grandma has never had a convincing enough reason to rationalize her compulsion, and I don’t think she’ll ever find one. “You won’t find a deal like this anymore” or “we’ve got a lot of people in our family” is the justification for buying 10 quilts or 8 bottles of laundry detergent or 5 whole boxes of tissues at the same time, and nothing can waver her decision.  

 

Grandma is not one with pretty words, so the way for her to show affection is to make sure we have more than everything we want and need. She’s a matriarch whose only weakness is her love for her family, and she falls short of consumerism because she’s been scarred by having to survive on nothing. Who can fault her when her compulsion is driven by unconditional love, money-saving and the responsibility to provide?

 

Grandpa was not one with words, so the way for him to show affection was to quietly and indulgently support grandma’s overboard generosity. Having lived the first 30 years of material hardship just like Song Dong’s mother, he was generous yet stingy. He salvaged, mended and fixed everything in the house. Together with grandma, they saved every bit of material that might be remotely useful. Everything was too precious to be thrown out, if they couldn’t fix something then they would repurpose it. 

 

I guess my grandma’s hoarding is a little different from Song Dong’s mother’s “Museum of Family History” (do you like the name lol), because my family home is also a palace of “Unboxed Household Items Since the 1990s” and a workshop of “Barely Functional Household Items That are Forbidden to be Tossed”. 

 

Since I was a child, grandma has been carefully dismantling ribbon handles from paper bags, sorting them by colour, and stashing them somewhere only she knows. She would use them to tie a fragile plant to an old chopstick, to close a cupboard door that’s half hanging off the frame, or to tie them to every one of my suitcases as a good luck charm. And for the paper bags, grandpa used to put them underneath leaking thermos, almost-gone-bad fruits, hot dishes and pots, or anything that could use a coaster or a tray, not because we were short of coasters or trays, but because we saved the nice ones for important occasions. 

 

Grandpa is gone for a year now, but we still find the paper bags he left around the house. Occasionally, we’d hear someone yelling in a whiny tone:” Who did this?” Realizing it’s one of grandpa’s paper bags that’s gotten stuck to the floor, we all just left the paper bag where it was. 

 

A few days ago was the first anniversary of grandpa’s death, so we went to visit “him” at the graveyard. I secretly treated the visit like a ceremony because the last time I saw him was 2019, but I think unconsciously we all did. 

 

Grandma started preparing a few days before the visit -- plastic flowers, cloth, and things to say to him. On the morning of the visit, she took out her stash of red ribbons. She sorted them by length and picked one long piece and 3 short pieces and handed them to me. She told me to tie the longest around my waist, then the short ones around my ankles and my wrist. I gave her a dubious look, refusing to look ridiculous.

 

Nonchalantly, she began tying the ribbons onto herself whilst re-telling a story that I love so much. It’s a story I’ve told you before:

 

When I was a few months old, my parents took me into a convenience shop where an old lady had just passed away. I began to wail as soon as I entered the shop. Ever since that day, I cried almost every night. I remember that I would cry myself awake, and find myself rocking back and forth in grandma’s arms, both grandma and grandpa trying to calm me down. They took me to the doctor but no one knew what was wrong with me. So when I was about five, they took me to the country to meet one of their distant cousins who was a Shaman. Knowing nothing about my convenience shop incident, he told them that an old woman had ‘taken’ my soul and processed me. He chanted for me, made me a charm to put under my pillows to keep me safe, and taught grandma an exorcist ceremony to perform to call my soul back. When we got home, grandma prepared for the ceremony during the day and performed it at midnight. From the next night on, I never cried at night again, she got the old woman to give my soul back.

 

When she finished telling the story, she’s all suited up with the ribbons. In her underwear and red ribbon armour, she looked like a ridiculous warrior who’s prepared to do anything to see her husband again. I looked at her and just burst out laughing. She did too. It was the first time I saw her laugh in the last 3 months. So I didn’t say anything else, I just grabbed the long ribbon and tied it around my waist. 

 

The only Chinese graveyard I’ve seen is from old horror movies, maybe it’s grandma’s red ribbons, maybe it’s grandpa’s spirit, maybe it’s both of them protecting me, it wasn’t scary like grandma made it out to be.  

 

We followed the graveyard attendant to archival room No.8 in the office area, that’s where grandpa lives temporarily. It’s only temporary because Grandpa gets a spot on the memorial wall for fighting in the war. But there were so many war heroes from his generation that they ran out of walls. So while we wait for his wall to be built, he has to wait in this archival room. The spot on the wall only lasts 20 years too, but permanence is only a concept for the living. 

 

The archival room is lined with shelves. The shelves are divided into box sizes with glass doors. Grandpa’s spot is No.255. He exists in the form of a mahogany box now, a flag covers the box, and his name is engraved on the front side of it, just below the photo of him. Somehow I can still feel the warmth in his smile . 

 

Grandma handed me a cloth and I wiped off a year's worth of dust around grandpa’s box. She said to him: Your granddaughter is finally back and is here to see you. I wanted to cry so badly so I made a joke instead, saying that I’ve come to give grandpa a shower. Grandpa never liked to shower anyway, so this yearly visit really works in his favor. But still, it’s unacceptable to not shower in a year.

 

The cleaning was smooth and somehow ritualistic, it became a personal way for me to connect to grandpa. I felt so close to him, I felt like I was wiping not the glass door but his body, I felt like I had my arm around his arm and I was holding his hand. I felt like I was finally able to give him the hug I didn’t get to give two years ago. Two years ago, I didn’t get to say to grandpa “I’ll see you when I come back”. This time, I said to him “Hello grandpa, I’m back.”

 

Underneath the mountains of brand new scarves, hats, stuffed animals, is my childhood bed. Over the years, these things have occupied my room. Their imposing presence makes me think of the consequence of my absence on my family, the mental strain born out of the physical separation. I dragged my old quilt out from the mountains of plastic wrapped things, and I smelt it. As I struggle to find myself in my double-life, they struggle to find me in theirs. Every time I’ve come home, I struggle to reconcile my obedience, my love, my resentment, my independence, my guilt and my attachment to my family. I have to admit, sometimes my absence was intentional, it was my cowardly way to avoid dealing with these complex emotional relationships with home. I can smell the lament in the thick dust on every plastic cover of every room. It’s a silent protest against time. It’s their way to fill the void of a daughter and granddaughter who’s gone for too long. Grandma’s hoardings are the deep love for our family materialized. To wipe away the dust, it takes courage that I didn’t have.

 

Although I have to leave again, this time, I think I might have mustered a little more courage to face my absence and my guilt. For a year, I thought our family had fallen apart because grandpa’s gone, grandma’s depressed, dad’s health dwindled, auntie is spread thin between home and hospital and I am not there. But on the day of the visit, I realized that grandpa’s death has drawn us closer than ever. It gave us a new family tradition, an important day to remember. Just like how he used to fix and repurpose things, he is still helping us to mend and keeping us together even when things don’t work perfectly. My life is a long love letter my grandparents have written, it’s a collection of household things and a waste not philosophy. I wasn’t looking for closure, I was looking for a new beginning. 

 

I haven’t described seeing grandpa to anyone before, and I don’t have the grasp of the language to fully articulate my feelings, but I know you’ll understand me nonetheless. So much happened in our lives last year and if anyone can understand, it’s you.

 

Count this letter as a collection of a dozen postcards because I haven’t sent you any in the last two years. Sorry that this letter has become a bit of a meandering monster of my thoughts. 

 

There is so much more I want to tell you about, but I’m short of words for them. 

 

I know I’ve told you I’ve been writing this letter to you, but I still couldn’t decide if I want to send it to you. I’ll decide tomorrow.

 

Nova

August 7-16 2021








 

Bibliography 

 

  •  I’m referring to Song Dong’s (b1966) installation work Waste Not (2005), which he collaborated with his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938-2009), and his video/performance work “Touching Father” (1998, 2002, 2010)

  •  “Song Dong’s Waste Not – Why Obsessive Hoarding Lead to This Project – Public Delivery” (Publicdelivery.org 2021) <https://publicdelivery.org/song-dong-waste-not/> accessed August 16, 2021

  •  “Song Dong: Waste Not - Art Almanac” (Art AlmanacNovember 27, 2012) <https://www.art-almanac.com.au/song-dong-waste-not/> accessed August 16, 2021

  • Dear Kathy, 

  •  

  • How are you? Today is the “Start of Autumn” in China. Both my dad and grandma have been messaging me about eating meat since they woke up, I never knew why eating meat is the tradition of the first day of the fall, but I also never questioned these traditions. Grandma said skinny people eat meat, fat people eat cucumbers, I don’t know if she just made up the cucumber bit. I wanted to make her laugh, so I asked if I should have cucumber or meat, she replied in a very serious tone that I’m too skinny to be eating more cucumbers. So I ordered some fried chicken for breakfast. 

  •  

  • You know, as much as I sometimes get annoyed at their cyclical messaging, it’s really nice to be “pestered” about these trivial things in life. It tells you that someone in the world loves you unreservedly. They are thinking whole-heartedly for you, I guess that’s family. But if they are gone, who’s going to remind me of these Chinese traditions that I traded for Santa and turkey? If grandpa was still here, he would’ve made blanched pork belly and garlic soy dip at lunch. And grandma would’ve made sure he’d made enough for a whole week. Tomorrow is the “Start of Autumn” in Vancouver, you and Sean should eat meat too. I heard it’s been really hot there, which is unusual for Vancouver. It’s also been really wet here, which is unusual for Beijing.

  •  

  • You asked me what it’s like to be home. Well, being back in China for this long feels weird, haha. But it also feels weird saying that, because it’s where we are from. But I guess for people like us, everything is kinda weird, leaving, returning, leaving again etc, etc. Remember we used to say “home is where the heart is” to make us look cool, lol, until we are finally old enough to feel the grief of it becoming a reality.

  •  

  • Coming back feels like being tethered to an umbilical cord, it’s both nourishing and strangling. Everyone here (me especially I think) is trying to get used to having “me” around. Sometimes I feel like a distant relative, because I’ve missed out on so many things over the years, and they have become too complicated to be explained to me. But most of the time, I still feel like the same child, like no time had elapsed between the day I left, to the moment I’m writing to you now. The only evidence of change is the house that’s now even more stuffed full of grandma’s things from floor to ceiling, and she has moved to sleep on grandpa’s side since he passed away. I don’t know what I’m ranting about but perhaps it’s got to do with grief, with traditions, with family, with materiality, with displacement... and having inserted myself back into what feels almost like an alternate reality, I am experiencing a duality of my existence. I am shimmying between my life in China and in Australia, shimmying between the walls of grandma’s “stuff fortress”. Song Dong’s works keep popping up in my head, the past and present of my family memory is like the air I breathe in, his works that we both love so much have become more and more poignant. 

  •  

  • I don’t remember how I discovered Song Dong, I must have been researching something else and stumbled upon photos of Waste Not. I remember telling you about it and you told me you had dinner with him one time in Beijing, it made me super jealous. 

  •  

  • That’s when my grandpa was still alive, grandma was cheerful, my dad was in the early stage of renal failure and your dad had just been diagnosed with ALS. It was the time the fear of death began to loom. I don't think I’d ever learnt how to deal with the grief of losing a family member if I hadn’t experienced it. Yet, we’ve both experienced it now, I still don’t know if I’d learnt how to deal with it. 

  •  

  • I have never seen anything more powerful and I have never felt so touched and attached and confronted when I looked at Waste Not. Every common household object in his work recalled memories of my family, the lives of three generations through every trinket and pair of shoes, echoing my past, my future and the present that I’ve been absent for. 

  •  

  • Grandma and grandpa spent 62 years together in this world. So her “stuff fortress” is the result of 30 years of scraping by and 30 years of overbuying and hoarding, which totally made up for the first 30 difficult years.

  •  

  • Song Dong said when he confronted his mother about hoarding, she always replied “You never know when it’ll come in handy”. The same phrase my grandma uses to brush off our complaints. 

  •  

  • Grandma has never had a convincing enough reason to rationalize her compulsion, and I don’t think she’ll ever find one. “You won’t find a deal like this anymore” or “we’ve got a lot of people in our family” is the justification for buying 10 quilts or 8 bottles of laundry detergent or 5 whole boxes of tissues at the same time, and nothing can waver her decision.  

  •  

  • Grandma is not one with pretty words, so the way for her to show affection is to make sure we have more than everything we want and need. She’s a matriarch whose only weakness is her love for her family, and she falls short of consumerism because she’s been scarred by having to survive on nothing. Who can fault her when her compulsion is driven by unconditional love, money-saving and the responsibility to provide?

  •  

  • Grandpa was not one with words, so the way for him to show affection was to quietly and indulgently support grandma’s overboard generosity. Having lived the first 30 years of material hardship just like Song Dong’s mother, he was generous yet stingy. He salvaged, mended and fixed everything in the house. Together with grandma, they saved every bit of material that might be remotely useful. Everything was too precious to be thrown out, if they couldn’t fix something then they would repurpose it. 

  •  

  • I guess my grandma’s hoarding is a little different from Song Dong’s mother’s “Museum of Family History” (do you like the name lol), because my family home is also a palace of “Unboxed Household Items Since the 1990s” and a workshop of “Barely Functional Household Items That are Forbidden to be Tossed”. 

  •  

  • Since I was a child, grandma has been carefully dismantling ribbon handles from paper bags, sorting them by colour, and stashing them somewhere only she knows. She would use them to tie a fragile plant to an old chopstick, to close a cupboard door that’s half hanging off the frame, or to tie them to every one of my suitcases as a good luck charm. And for the paper bags, grandpa used to put them underneath leaking thermos, almost-gone-bad fruits, hot dishes and pots, or anything that could use a coaster or a tray, not because we were short of coasters or trays, but because we saved the nice ones for important occasions. 

  •  

  • Grandpa is gone for a year now, but we still find the paper bags he left around the house. Occasionally, we’d hear someone yelling in a whiny tone:” Who did this?” Realizing it’s one of grandpa’s paper bags that’s gotten stuck to the floor, we all just left the paper bag where it was. 

  •  

  • A few days ago was the first anniversary of grandpa’s death, so we went to visit “him” at the graveyard. I secretly treated the visit like a ceremony because the last time I saw him was 2019, but I think unconsciously we all did. 

  •  

  • Grandma started preparing a few days before the visit -- plastic flowers, cloth, and things to say to him. On the morning of the visit, she took out her stash of red ribbons. She sorted them by length and picked one long piece and 3 short pieces and handed them to me. She told me to tie the longest around my waist, then the short ones around my ankles and my wrist. I gave her a dubious look, refusing to look ridiculous.

  •  

  • Nonchalantly, she began tying the ribbons onto herself whilst re-telling a story that I love so much. It’s a story I’ve told you before:

  •  

  • When I was a few months old, my parents took me into a convenience shop where an old lady had just passed away. I began to wail as soon as I entered the shop. Ever since that day, I cried almost every night. I remember that I would cry myself awake, and find myself rocking back and forth in grandma’s arms, both grandma and grandpa trying to calm me down. They took me to the doctor but no one knew what was wrong with me. So when I was about five, they took me to the country to meet one of their distant cousins who was a Shaman. Knowing nothing about my convenience shop incident, he told them that an old woman had ‘taken’ my soul and processed me. He chanted for me, made me a charm to put under my pillows to keep me safe, and taught grandma an exorcist ceremony to perform to call my soul back. When we got home, grandma prepared for the ceremony during the day and performed it at midnight. From the next night on, I never cried at night again, she got the old woman to give my soul back.

  •  

  • When she finished telling the story, she’s all suited up with the ribbons. In her underwear and red ribbon armour, she looked like a ridiculous warrior who’s prepared to do anything to see her husband again. I looked at her and just burst out laughing. She did too. It was the first time I saw her laugh in the last 3 months. So I didn’t say anything else, I just grabbed the long ribbon and tied it around my waist. 

  •  

  • The only Chinese graveyard I’ve seen is from old horror movies, maybe it’s grandma’s red ribbons, maybe it’s grandpa’s spirit, maybe it’s both of them protecting me, it wasn’t scary like grandma made it out to be.  

  •  

  • We followed the graveyard attendant to archival room No.8 in the office area, that’s where grandpa lives temporarily. It’s only temporary because Grandpa gets a spot on the memorial wall for fighting in the war. But there were so many war heroes from his generation that they ran out of walls. So while we wait for his wall to be built, he has to wait in this archival room. The spot on the wall only lasts 20 years too, but permanence is only a concept for the living. 

  •  

  • The archival room is lined with shelves. The shelves are divided into box sizes with glass doors. Grandpa’s spot is No.255. He exists in the form of a mahogany box now, a flag covers the box, and his name is engraved on the front side of it, just below the photo of him. Somehow I can still feel the warmth in his smile . 

  •  

  • Grandma handed me a cloth and I wiped off a year's worth of dust around grandpa’s box. She said to him: Your granddaughter is finally back and is here to see you. I wanted to cry so badly so I made a joke instead, saying that I’ve come to give grandpa a shower. Grandpa never liked to shower anyway, so this yearly visit really works in his favor. But still, it’s unacceptable to not shower in a year.

  •  

  • The cleaning was smooth and somehow ritualistic, it became a personal way for me to connect to grandpa. I felt so close to him, I felt like I was wiping not the glass door but his body, I felt like I had my arm around his arm and I was holding his hand. I felt like I was finally able to give him the hug I didn’t get to give two years ago. Two years ago, I didn’t get to say to grandpa “I’ll see you when I come back”. This time, I said to him “Hello grandpa, I’m back.”

  •  

  • Underneath the mountains of brand new scarves, hats, stuffed animals, is my childhood bed. Over the years, these things have occupied my room. Their imposing presence makes me think of the consequence of my absence on my family, the mental strain born out of the physical separation. I dragged my old quilt out from the mountains of plastic wrapped things, and I smelt it. As I struggle to find myself in my double-life, they struggle to find me in theirs. Every time I’ve come home, I struggle to reconcile my obedience, my love, my resentment, my independence, my guilt and my attachment to my family. I have to admit, sometimes my absence was intentional, it was my cowardly way to avoid dealing with these complex emotional relationships with home. I can smell the lament in the thick dust on every plastic cover of every room. It’s a silent protest against time. It’s their way to fill the void of a daughter and granddaughter who’s gone for too long. Grandma’s hoardings are the deep love for our family materialized. To wipe away the dust, it takes courage that I didn’t have.

  •  

  • Although I have to leave again, this time, I think I might have mustered a little more courage to face my absence and my guilt. For a year, I thought our family had fallen apart because grandpa’s gone, grandma’s depressed, dad’s health dwindled, auntie is spread thin between home and hospital and I am not there. But on the day of the visit, I realized that grandpa’s death has drawn us closer than ever. It gave us a new family tradition, an important day to remember. Just like how he used to fix and repurpose things, he is still helping us to mend and keeping us together even when things don’t work perfectly. My life is a long love letter my grandparents have written, it’s a collection of household things and a waste not philosophy. I wasn’t looking for closure, I was looking for a new beginning. 

  •  

  • I haven’t described seeing grandpa to anyone before, and I don’t have the grasp of the language to fully articulate my feelings, but I know you’ll understand me nonetheless. So much happened in our lives last year and if anyone can understand, it’s you.

  •  

  • Count this letter as a collection of a dozen postcards because I haven’t sent you any in the last two years. Sorry that this letter has become a bit of a meandering monster of my thoughts. 

  •  

  • There is so much more I want to tell you about, but I’m short of words for them. 

  •  

  • I know I’ve told you I’ve been writing this letter to you, but I still couldn’t decide if I want to send it to you. I’ll decide tomorrow.

  •  

  • Nova

  • August 7-16 2021








  •  

  • Bibliography 

  •  

  •  I’m referring to Song Dong’s (b1966) installation work Waste Not (2005), which he collaborated with his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan (1938-2009), and his video/performance work “Touching Father” (1998, 2002, 2010)

  •  “Song Dong’s Waste Not – Why Obsessive Hoarding Lead to This Project – Public Delivery” (Publicdelivery.org 2021) <https://publicdelivery.org/song-dong-waste-not/> accessed August 16, 2021

  •  “Song Dong: Waste Not - Art Almanac” (Art AlmanacNovember 27, 2012) <https://www.art-almanac.com.au/song-dong-waste-not/> accessed August 16, 2021